Introduction: The Miracle of Language Learning
The process of language acquisition is often taken for granted. Since every single person born into this world is subdued subsequently to the educational process, which implies shifting from the basics to more complicated knowledge and skills acquisition, the significance the aptitude to the development of linguistic abilities at the earliest stages of one’s development may be viewed as self-explanatory and not worth focusing on. However, a more detailed analysis of the subject matter will point to the fact that very little is currently known about the mechanisms that allow the rapid development of linguistic skills in early childhood. Although several theories on the subject matter exist, they fail to shed light on every single aspect of the process, as well as explain the effects of possible hindrances.
The Basic Steps of Learning the First Words
Skinner: The Interactionist Model
As a rule, several theories are identified when addressing the issue of early linguistic skills acquisition. Traditionally, the Learning Theory, the Interactionist approach, and the Interactionist Model are mentioned as the primary means of looking at the native language acquisition process. The Interactionist Model, which was suggested by Skinner and is also known as the Behaviorist concept of language leaning (Ullman, 2015), implies that the process of linguistic skills development occurs primarily as a result of the outside influence and demands that the child should be exposed to the environment, in which active communication and the related interactions can be observed.
While having a point, Skinner dismissed a range of factors affecting early language development in children, which triggered a rapid demise of the theory and the subsequent development of a new approach towards understanding the basics l=of early language learning.
Chomsky: Universal Grammar
Another theory that suggested an interesting respective on the process of language skills acquisition, the framework of the Universal Grammar designed by the world-renowned linguist Noam Chomsky implied that people have an intrinsic understanding of some grammatical categories, such as verbs and nouns. While the above assumption might seem somewhat questionable nowadays, the theory was welcomed rather warmly at the time, creating premises for a range of assumptions and sparking a variety of studies. One must admit that, even though not quite credible as a concept, the above framework has not yet been rejected (Karim & Nassagi, 2013). In fact, it is still considered viable, numerous studies having been carried out to prove the theory either right or wrong.
While seemingly incredible, Chomsky’s concept of intrinsic understanding of linguistic categories should not be dismissed at once, though. A closer look at the effects of the model suggested by the scholar will reveal that Chomsky’s approach has sparked quite a few theories regarding the mechanisms of acquiring the second-language-related skills: “Following this perspective, several SLA researchers, such as Krashen (1984) and Dulay and Burt (1974), argued that adult L2 acquisition is very similar to child L1 acquisition and that this process is not much affected by learners’ L1 background” (Karim & Nassagi, 2013, p. 119).
Seeing that some of the theories that were prompted by Chomsky’s framework are still viable nowadays, one must admit that there could be a grain of truth in the assumptions made by the scholar. Nevertheless, the theory evidently needs an update. Particularly, the reconsideration of the factors that predetermine the development of the intrinsic abilities to acquire language-learning skills and the reasons for these abilities to manifest themselves so vividly at the identified age (1-2 years) needs to be carried out.
Modern Frameworks: What Is Yet to Be Discovered
Even though Chomsky’s theory has been credited as rather sensible and has not been rejected yet, numerous attempts at looking at the subject matter form a different perspective and locating other means of understanding the process of language skills acquisition have been undertaken. The results are quite impressive; even though a solid substitution for the current theories has not been located yet, a variety of interesting concepts have emerged. Particularly, the concept of Pattern Learning needs to be brought up. According to the above framework, children acquire the necessary skills by learning certain patterns.
Bilingual Children and Their Language Learning Process
While the process of acquiring language skills required to speak one language is too complex to identify, explaining the phenomenon of bilingual children is surprisingly intelligible. Although the mechanisms that are activated once the child starts acquiring g the skills necessary to communicate in two different languages, and does so simultaneously, are still obscure, the theories regarding the subject matter are less numerous. Particularly, the Unitary System Theory, the Dual one, and the Tripartite one are typically brought up.
According to the basic premises of the Unitary System, children acquire information about the two languages to the point where they perceive them as a whole. As soon as the amount of data reaches its critical mass, young learners start differentiating between the languages, thus, identifying the unique characteristics thereof and relating specific elements to the corresponding language.
The Dual Theory, as one may have guessed, insists that children learn the specifics of the two languages while being able to differentiate between the two from the very start. As a result, the data regarding each language is linked to the corresponding set of rules and, therefore, memorized successfully. At present, the Unitary and the Dual Systems are the only legitimate explanations of the phenomenon of simultaneous bilingualism developing in young children.
It should be borne in mind, though, that the above frameworks have sparked the development of the Subsystem Theory. However, while being based on a rather reasonable premise, the framework identified above still needs further testing to become a legitimate part of the existing pleiade of the bilingual skills development in young children (Hommel, 2014).
Feral Children and Their Development: Is All Hope Lost?
However, there Is more to the process of language acquisition than merely leaving a child on their own with the immense amount of information that they must process to develop the required amount of language skills. In fact, when claiming that the parents’ role in the development of speech, though being welcomed, is not quite necessary, one misses an essential point. Particularly, the significance of exposing the child to the environment in which people interact socially is crucial to the development of the necessary language skills.
The infamous case of Genie, who was denied the chance to acquire the basic linguistic skills on purpose, as her father prohibited her from observing any form of linguistic interactions, is the primary cause of underdeveloped linguistic skills and the following mental impairment. It is peculiar that the woman displays the inability to think logically as well, which is quite understandable from the perspective of the existing cognitive theories. For instance, Piaget’s framework points to the fact that, by omitting the preoperational stage, Genie could not progress to the one requiring abstract thinking, as she did not have the tools for carrying out the basic logical operations.
While admittedly interesting from an analytical and research-related point of view, the cases under analysis are understudied for obvious reasons. Since carrying out the experiments that impede the development of one’s physical or mental abilities is unethical and illegal, the further analysis of the subject matter is barely possible. However, the existing cases allow for making rather bold statements concerning the significance of early childhood development. The instances mentioned above show quite clearly that, as long as at least one stage of the child’s development has been omitted, there are virtually no chances to create premises for their further progress.
It is quite remarkable that the identified case provides evidence for Genie having a certain vocabulary. To put it differently, the child was aware of certain words, which could be attributed to her overhearing them occasionally while her father communicated with the people in the vicinity:
Whereas her vocabulary consistently grew, Genie failed to develop normal syntax. Her speech contained no com question words, no demonstratives, and no particles. Genie also failed to construct sentences derived by syntactic movement [32,33]. This demonstrates a crucial point regarding critical periods for first language acquisition: different language domains may show different acquisition paths, with different critical periods. (Friedman & Rusou, 2015, p. 29)
However, as the case in point shows, the above information was not enough to develop a proper command of the language. More importantly, it was too little even to understand how language works. Thus, while it is quite understandable that children develop linguistic skills better once they are assisted by adults, preferably their parents, it is also evident that the occasional exposure to dialogues and the acquisition of vocabulary is not enough to be able to form ideas and make logical conclusions.
Though seemingly simple and taking a comparatively short amount of time, the process of children developing linguistic skills determines their further progress as learners. Moreover, whether a child succeeds to acquire the corresponding amount of language skills within the required amount of time defines their ability to not only communicate their ideas successfully to the people around them but also to think logically and be able to perform the basic logical operations. In other words, the early speech acquisition process determines the further progress of the child and allows for the successful mental development thereof.
Although there are a plethora of theories detailing the specifics of early childhood development, in general, and the acquisition of linguistic skills, in particular, the Learning approach, the Naturalist Theory, and the Interactionist Model are typically singled out. While the latter is often viewed as slowly wearing out its welcome, the three frameworks for understanding the way, in which a child acquires the ability to speak, are typically used to model the necessary educational setting and analyze the issues that may occur in the process of language skills acquisition. The overview carried out the above points to the fact that the Interactionist theory has the most reasonable stance on the phenomenon of early linguistic skills development.
Friedman, N., & Rusou, D. (2015). Critical period for first language: The crucial role of language input during the first year of life. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 35(1), 27–34.
Hommel, B. (2014). Between persistence and flexibility: The Yin and Yang of action control. In Advances in motivation science(pp. 33067). Geneva: Elsevier.
Karim, K., & Nassagi, H. (2013). First language transfer in second language writing: An Examination of current research. Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research, 1(1), 117- 134.
Ullman, M. T. (2015). The declarative/procedural model: A neurobiological model of language learning, knowledge, and use.” In The Neurobiology of language (953-968). New York, NY: Elsevier.